October 29, 2008

As a merger draws near, GM and Chrysler cull the SUV herd

In cattle ranching parlance, culling the herd is a process of selective slaughter. It is a metered and carefully planned elimination of the weak and unfit, done to protect the rest of the herd either from disease or in hard times, from starvation.

General Motors and Chrysler both sharpened their fiscal axes today and took drastic steps to ensure their continued survival. Upon unanimous approval by the board of directors, GM announced it has cancelled Project CXX, a $2 billion program to replace the aging Cadillac Escalade, GMC Yukon and Chevrolet Suburban sport-utility vehicles.

“It would have been very difficult in today’s environment to spend a couple of billion dollars to do a replacement,” said Bob Lutz, GM’s vice chairman and head of product development in a statement.

All three full-size sport utes — which a decade ago were icons of a resurgent GM — are now living on borrowed time. With the recent truck plant closures in Ohio and Wisconsin, the current generation of sport-utes will only be built for as long as sales volume remains self-sustaining.

Sales of sport-utility vehicles have steadily waned since 2004. As the highly profitable market shrank, losses continued to mount at all of the Big Three. And after posting a $18.8 billion loss in the second quarter of 2008, GM is reported to be in the final stages of a merger with embattled Chrysler LLC. While 2008 hasn't been kind to any domestic automaker, GM will likely suffer the worst in the coming months; its passenger cars were often sold as loss-makers and the company staked it's continued success on its line of sport-utes.

Layoffs at GM plants are set to continue, with Janesville, the firm's oldest and most reliant on sport-ute production, set to close by Christmas. If the Chrysler merger goes through, further layoffs are expected.

Chrysler pulls plug on Aspen & Durango hybrids
Earlier this week, Chrysler announced it would close its Newark, Del. plant nearly a year ahead of schedule. As a result, the Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen Hybrid sport-utes will be culled before they complete their first full model year.

Production of the two full-size hybrid sport-utes began two months ago, just in time to be scorched in September, the worst month of U.S. auto sales in 15 years.

Speaking with Automotive News, Chrysler spokesman Todd Goyer said the company had no plans to move the Aspen and Durango hybrids elsewhere. "Keeping the plant open for the hybrid versions isn't a sound business decision," he said.

1,000 Chrysler employees will be laid off when the final shift is completed on Dec. 31, 2008.

The Detroit News reports there are no signs that Chrysler will commit to another body-on-frame full-size sport-ute. Ford has already committed to a unibody layout for the next Ford Explorer, following the lead established by Honda with their Pilot sport-ute and Ridgeline pickup truck.

Unibody layouts used stamped steel sections that are welded together to form the structure of an automobile. Commonly used to build passenger cars, unibody designs are typically 10 to 20 percent lighter — and hence, can be more fuel-efficient — than a similarly sized body-on-frame vehicle.


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